How did adults view April’s rebellious youth?
In 2016, many adults said, or at least thought,
that the millennial youth were politically apathetic,
individualistic and uninterested in Nicaragua’s problems.
Only two years later, in last’s year’s sudden April uprising,
they saw those same youths go out into the streets unarmed
to change the country, risking prison or even their own lives.
They were in the front lines of a self-convoked social movement
that is still resisting despite the continuing brutal repression.
How do adult analysts assess that turn-around?
José Luis Rocha
Five university youth organizations made up the heart and muscle of last April’s revolt. Their debut on the nation’s political stage took analysts by surprise and swam against the current of previous critiques of the millennial generation.
The motivations of
this generation’s youth
The political involvement of this youth generation was cast into doubt two years before April’s uprising by several national analysts, including feminist journalist Sofía Montenegro, whose views ruffled the feathers of a number of young people.
Montenegro, rightfully respected for her piercing analyses, wrote that “in contrast to the youth of their parents, the next generation seems more sedate and withdrawn into the family, busy with studies and fun with limited participation even in sports or religious arenas… In contrast to their parents’ generation, which barely took the time to think about personal life projects and dedicated its youth to a general project of change under the mandate of ‘bellicose heroism,’ the main motivations for the future of these young post-revolutionary people are linked to social mobility, an aspiration for certainty, autonomy, independence and economic wellbeing. Given the collapse of the institutions, the closing of spaces and the crisis of politics, they have withdrawn from public service and civic participation in favor of private and family arenas, putting their energies into individual life projects and self-realization….” These same opinions had previously been put forward by a respectable cohort of analysts, and were taken as clear and unarguable fact by others.
In general terms, the youths who reacted and the adults who backed them up interpreted these statements as an accusation of lack of social and political commitment and argued that those who made them were misguided. One such youth, Rodrigo Peñalba, wrote in his blog: “It is very wearing to be told over the Internet that you ‘aren’t as heroic as we were.”
Montenegro’s statements matched those of analysts in other parts of the world. The vision of Thomas Leoncini, whose epistolary dialogue with Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman gave birth to Nati liquidi, published after Bauman’s death, is pessimistic. “Internet, with its social networks, deceives us,” he says, “making us believe that through ‘likes’ and comments we can really shape and disseminate a universal democracy. But instead, what we are creating is nothing more than our own personal and individual vision, which will end up adding to other different individual visions. We often imagine the comments on the social networks as a river made up of the same drops of water, but it seems more a lake with lots and lots of drops of oil that never penetrate the water, demonstrating only that they exist in an individual form….”
“Catechism of a Revolutionary”
The supposition that the millennial youth practice politics from their cell phones and social networks and that an abyss separates the ways of doing politics before and after Internet is an explicit assumption of this analysis. It is based on the idea that technology draws an uncrossable dividing line between those linked in and those not, in which the former belong to the on-line generation and the latter to the off-line world. Bauman warns of the danger of being on line: “Some insightful observers have compared this divine sensation, having control in the on-line world, to that which overcomes a child left alone in a candy store.”
The critics of today’s young people would appear to have used as their commitment yardstick a manifesto titled “Catechism of a Revolutionary,” published in 1869 under the name of the Russian revolutionary Sergey Nechayev, who was associated with the Nihilist movement of the time, although some have attributed all or part of it to the Russian revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. Its strict criteria would put the millennial youth’s critics on one side of a weighing scale to see whether the youth’s political involvement, moral fiber and capacity to lead a social change matched the weight of their own.
The manifesto’s success in its time was surely envied by the author of Das Kapital and its influence on the formation of revolutionary dedication continued throughout the 20th century. According to its guidelines, the revolutionary is a “doomed man. The revolutionary knows that in the very depths of his being, not only in words but also in deeds, he has broken all the bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilized world with all its laws, moralities, and customs, and with all its generally accepted conventions. He is their implacable enemy, and if he continues to live with them it is only in order to destroy them more speedily.”
One of the millennial youths who bolted against the accusations of individualism and technological alienation intuitively took issue with the exigencies of that catechism as well: “’Free stupidity or death to computers. How am I going to read Confidencial if I don’t have Wi-Fi? Of course. I wouldn’t read it because I died in the streets fighting the system. That’s what the adults want; it’s the radical response they’re looking for from us.”
The characterization of Daniel Ortega by journalist Fabián Medina shows the FSLN chief’s passion to replicate the catechism’s ideal revolutionary in his own life. “Daniel Ortega assumes everything he does in life as a sacrifice, as part of his destiny,” writes Medina. “War, being a leader, feeling himself a prisoner, not doing the things ordinary people do, even his difficult relationship with Rosario Murillo are part of his cross. He is a person who revels in his pain, who does penitence, at times gratuitously and needlessly, but treats it as his mission in life. He says he would like to do other, less ‘sacrificial’ things, but at bottom he knows he has nothing else to do.”
April changed the way of doing politics
The controversy went on for years. Even before Monte¬negro’s critique, a man who identified himself as Armando Martínez, a Sandinista who listened to guerrilla comandante Mónica Baltodano’s Saturday radio program on which she explained how she recovered memories of the struggles against the Somocista dictatorship, reproached contemporary university students. He grumbled that they “have only taken an interest in the university struggle for six percent of the budget, while the citizenry’s daily problems don’t matter to them… so there’s nobody to head up these struggles.”
Martínez’s misapprehension was not long in being corrected through the #OcupaINSS protest in 2013. Managua’s university students took to the streets for days (and nights) before being beaten and robbed by the government’s early version of today’s paramilitaries for defending the rights of elderly demonstrators who occupied the Social Security Institute headquarters demanding their right to a pension. But that episode was still not a big enough deal to dissipate some adult’s image of this generation as apolitical, individualist and even lacking culture.
Three years after #OcupaINSS, we witnessed the bitter controversy about the millennials in which Sofía Montenegro participated and the stereotype of a young population indifferent to the political events around them was still firmly held by many. But this was shattered by the events of April 2018, which marked a before and after in the perception of many adults regarding the youth’s involvement in politics.
The way the millennials, independent of their social strata, engaged in politics starting last April broke with the paradigm of revolution that served as a model for 20th-century revolutionaries. This was in part because April’s unruly youth only organized after the fact. The university students didn’t enter politics through the classic revolutionary organizations that attempted to lead social change in Latin America in the last half of the 20th century. They were thrust into it via a social movement forged by the events of the revolt. It was with pride in the knowledge of that distinction that they defined themselves as “self-convoked.” They activated, formed part of and influenced that movement, and were in turn influenced by it. And in so doing they changed the perception some of their critics had about their participation in politics.
She felt they weren’t interested in politics
A university political education professor who had earlier seen several leaders of the April rebellion pass through her classes confessed that she had been developing an increasingly unfavorable view of the more than 300 young people she taught oral and written expression and analysis of the reality over 11 years.
She felt the same right up to the eve of the civic insurrection. Asked what she thought of those youths, she said, “By the last graduating class, in November 2017, I was discouraged. I felt these kids were getting worse every year; that they were disinterested in politics. Although they had all exercised some leadership level in some organization and had a certain amount of experience, I saw them as accommodated. I tried to convince them that no political leadership is possible without a convincing and passionate discourse and without expanding their horizon through reading. I found the language they used in public speaking to be an unassimilated conceptual jargon. They seemed like scratched CDs when I got them talking to their classmates.”
That perception of indifference to the country’s reality wasn’t just held by adults. University leader Valezka Valle, a very visible student activist The Guardian described as “a church-going dance freak whose best friend was her dog” before April, agreed. “We’re to blame for what we’re living through right now because we never got involved in learning about the country’s economy, we never involved ourselves in learning about politics and we didn’t care about what was happening in health, in the education of the kids attending public schools. I was like that myself.”
One of the professor’s tasks was to try to rid her students of the pervasive standardized language of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and enrich their vocabulary: “I loaned them books with essays on Nicaraguan history and science. In class they had to read at least a couple of hours in silence and talk to their classmates about what they had read. I got discouraged just listening to them. I thought about how their framework is as brief as a tweet. That’s why it’s so hard for them to read and then transmit what they’ve read. It worried me because I can’t conceive of a leader who doesn’t read. Afterward, in the module on analysis of the reality, I tried to get them to understand that analyzing isn’t just saying ‘This politician is an s.o.b and the other one is cool.’ For years I’ve tried to get them to grasp that politics isn’t pure emotionality. I saw an involution in their disinterest in politics and their difficulty in getting beyond that one-liner content from their social networks and I blamed it on the social media.”
She also saw limitations in their commitment: “I saw that individual morals and family problems were the issues that most interested them and the ones they showed the greatest capacity to discuss. But the bigger the object of study, such as the community or country, the less they could analyze it. I started to grow resigned to the idea I’d die without seeing change in Nicaragua.”
They lacked the skills
of leaders of other times
It is interesting, but not surprising, that a wordsmith wouldn’t take actions such as going into the streets or engaging in other protests as a criterion of the youth’s leadership capacity, but rather what they say and how they say it, and whether it reflects analytical thought. Her critique is linked to the skill set of the student leaders of past struggles. Her disheartenment at seeing the encapsulation of the youth in the social networks doesn’t come from a critique of the confinement to a restricted physical sphere, but of the confinement to an epistemic individualist sphere where they don’t transcend the boundaries of the “I” to get to a more expansive “we,” such as the community and the country.
The dichotomy the professor’s explanation of the analytical debilities of the youths isn’t rationality/awareness, but society/individual. Although she also points out the problem of a pure political emotionality, the main limitation she found in the youth she taught was their inability to transcend individual problems and situate themselves on the social plane in a language not borrowed from the NGOs in Nicaragua, whose frequent and automatic use can end up stunting one’s own thought and lead one to resort to clichés.
The youth she knew lacked an “appropriated” language, understood in its two senses: made their own and adequate to their audience, and for politics: in other words, convinced and convincing.
From a volunteer work perspective
From another perspective, Sandra Ramos, director of the María Elena Cuadra Working Women’s Movement, had an optimistic appraisal of the political youth even before April: “These kids are the emerging political actor in this country, and that process was already underway,” she insists. “The youths were interested in Nicaragua’s reality from before. You’d see them at the traffic lights, for example, asking for donations for Operation Smile [for cleft palate surgery], the Telethon, or Los Pipitos [an organization for children with disabilities], or volunteering with Techo [an organization working with settlements of poor families in many Latin American countries]… And I saw it right here in the maquilas [fee-trade zone assembly plants for re-export]; young working women came and did volunteer work with our organization to teach the other women their rights. We haven’t reflected on that work as well as we should have.”
Tracing the political involvement and activism of young men and women through volunteer work is a pending task. In ordinary circumstances these forms can coexist with tyrannical regimes and with unpopular policies without altering the functioning of Politics with a capital P, which refers to who has hold of the reins of the State and how power is exercised. But even so, they are generating consciousness.
Following April’s rebellion, it is inevitable that the role played by the kinds of voluntary work arenas Sandra Ramos spoke about will be reassessed as expressions of interest in public affairs and as potential stepping stones to a more encouraging political involvement.
An ongoing process
Eric J. Hobsbawm knew that rebellions don’t arise from nothing, so he traced their roots and inspiration in their participants’ experiences in associations, collective work and even debating renas as informal as taverns. And he concluded that volunteer organizations have served as a school and an initial nucleus of social movements.
Sandra Ramos emphasized that the difference in taking up politics between her generation and today’s is that hers was pushed into certain actions because of the war. The context was very different and conditioned the methods of struggle.
Her direct personal experience with youths also gives her another perspective: I’m the mother of two young men, the youngest of whom is now 27. I didn’t see what they’re saying about the millennial youth reflected in him. My son had his ideas and critiques, not very public ones but no less real, which he assimilated in the world of kids.
I also saw advances with the young working-class women here in the María Elena Cuadra Movement. Back when the maquilas started in the nineties, I saw a generation of more adult working women take jobs there. They had a level of experience that they brought to their work posts: they didn’t allow themselves to be humiliated and there were hundreds of strikes in those first assembly plants. There was oppression, but they also had a response. When that generation gave way to the new one, the maquilas began filling up with young men and women who were coming straight out of high school, or even primary, some of whom hadn’t even finished. It was the youths with no real educational opportunities in this country, who were thus thrown out into a precarious job market who went to the maquilas. And I saw those young people very slowly moving toward action in defense of their rights. But that’s what our organizations are for. We began to let them know about their rights in the world of work so they could decide when to defend them. And I have lived through this whole process, which is an ongoing one.”
Although the new generations seemed less politicized, Ramos remembers #OcupaINSS as a burst of youthful commitment full of significance with “linkage between the economic, labor and social aspects. Why did the kids take a stand over a problem affecting retirees? Because we adults didn’t go out to defend the elderly, thinking it wasn’t anything to do with us. Deep down inside, the young people of #OcupaINSS were surely thinking that they would be professionals and could face the same problem one day. Or they were pushed by things they had seen and talked about in their families. They also got involved through their attachment to their grandparents, putting themselves in their shoes; and that means they were never removed from this country’s reality.”
I never believed
they were apathetic
A position somewhere in-between those of the disheartened professor and Sandra Ramos, although not equidistant, is that of Karla Lara, a professor at Managua’s Central American University (UCA): “The students were involved in a lot of social activities. In all my time as an educator, I’ve never believed the students are apathetic. I think the ways we’d like them to react are conditioned by the behaviors we adults had at some point in our own history. But we don’t stop to analyze the current context and how today’s youths are. When #OcupaINSS happened, the students offered a very high example of dignity, coherence and values. That’s when their awakening, or better said, their public political involvement, began.”
Karla Lara knew that young people were getting active in politics in some spheres. Just in the university sphere she saw some of them taking charge of radio programs, attending conferences and choosing social and political topics for their graduation monographs.
April’s rebellion was a revelation
And then came the April rebellion. Several informants admit that the abrupt emergence of the youth in the streets as the body and soul of the April 19 movement was a revelation to them. The political formation professor I interviewed recalled a conversation with one of her students who participated in the uprising. The student told her that “you were very hard and critical with us” and she acknowledged it: “I regret it; you’ve been braver than I could ever have imagined.”
Her perception of the youth shifted in April. And hers wasn’t the only one. Peasant leader Francisca Ramírez recalls: “Before April we were very critical of the university students because they seemed to be apathetic, like they didn’t care about their country. When the canal concession was made, it looked to us as if Nicaragua’s sovereignty had been given away and we saw that no young people said anything. We thought they’d been won over by the lie. The Ortega government was happy to have divided the people. He gave some of them hope, telling them the canal project was the way out of poverty. And he told us peasants the saddest thing: that we were going to be dispossessed of our lands because the law said they would be given to a Chinese investor. We noticed that the youths weren’t giving us their support and weren’t informed.”
But after April she changed her perception of the youths’ involvement in politics: “The government always tried to divide the people, but today we’re seeing that they failed. We believed the young people were buying its lies but that wasn’t the case. Today we feel we failed because they were being formed by what they were experiencing in Nicaragua. I have asked for forgiveness many times after seeing the bravery of so many university youths who lost their life and so many more who are in the prisons just for wanting a free Nicaragua. While we tried to organize forums with them and very few participated, it’s not true that they were apathetic; they knew what was going on. When the Indio Maíz forest reserve caught fire, they said, ‘That’s enough!’ And that voice inspired in us a future and a hope that Nicaragua won’t end up in the slaverythe Ortega government has been building. The young people’s participation in the April rebellion offered us Nicaraguans hope. They showed they were the country’s moral reserve, because they courageously raised their voices to not continue being subjected. They decided to miss their classes and even lose their school year, and thanks to them we’re going to have a free and democratic country.”
It was a surprise because
it was self-organized
In 2011 researcher and security expert Elvira Cuadra wrote that “youths between 16 and 19 years old, especially from the medium-high and high socioeconomic levels, are those least willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause…. One of the characteristics of modern times and of youth is a disinterest in politics…. This parochial culture combines with a set of materialist values that express young people’s craving for more and better opportunities for social and economic insertion, as well as expectations of fulfilling a personal life project.”
After April 2018, Cuadra was quick to recognize that this same youth was heading up the revolt: “The protest movement was led by young students born in the post-revolution…. The wave of mobilization and social protest organized mainly by university youths took the government, Nicaragua and the international community by surprise.” And Cuadra wasn’t exempt from that surprise: “The social movement has been surprising because it is self-organized and headed up by young students who were previously totally unknown. They come from three generations born in the post-revolution. They are youths born after the war and the revolution, believing that Nicaragua was a democracy and that its citizens were subjects of rights. Their apparent apathy and disinterest in politics actually expressed a strong rejection of the conventional actors and their politics.”
The country’s moral reserve
Journalist Julio López underscored that shift: “The accusation that they were apathetic, insensitive, indifferent youths with little commitment to the problems of Nicaraguan society because they weren’t interested in politics is a thing of the past…. Today, young people have come to the conclusion that their personal projects aren’t possible if there’s no change in the country.”
Political analyst Fernando Bárcenas applauded their leadership: “They are youths who must directly head up the dialogue with Ortega, should the conditions exist. The rest of the retinue is excess baggage.” Journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro also endorsed that leadership: “The dictatorship’s departure by peaceful means will only be possible if the mobilization headed by the self-convoked student movement is maintained alongside the national dialogue. The unexpected magnitude of the people’s reaction resulted from a group of university students and dozens of elderly people taking up a peaceful protest on their own….”
The appraisal of the youths and their role in national politics thus took a 180-degree turn from the opinions voiced during the controversy of only two years earlier. Church hierarchs, politicians, analysts, journalists and activists didn’t hesitate to issue ardent elegies about these young people who had awakened an entire country. The stereotype of the apathetic and individualist youth was replaced by the stereotype of audacious, committed youngsters with a strong and generous social sensitivity.
The auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez, famously considered them “the country’s moral reserve” and asserted that they had promoted an “ethical revolution.” He said that “I always believed this society was going to wake up because there were deep underlying structural social, political and economic problems here. The young people stirred the entire society into realizing that Nicaragua could be different and better.”
We’re shocked by what we’ve done
How did these young people get involved in the struggle and how did they handle their involvement? Almost from the very first moment, the government sold the idea of a plotted coup, a version in which the streets had supposedly been taken over by a “miniscule” group that didn’t represent Nicaraguans’ true feelings. That was first belied by a rough count of the massive participation of people of all classes and ages in the huge demonstrations in the country’s most important cities and other street protests right across the country.
The largest of those marches in Managua alone was estimated at upwards of 500,000 people, over 8% % of the country’s entire population and there were marches in other cities the same day. FSLN militants also argued that the rebellion was being directed behind the scenes by “rightwing” politicians in collusion with the US government and even with the International Monetary Fund, a claim Sandra Ramos refutes: “Tell me which party is leading them! There’s no party here capable of mobilizing such a huge number of people. The kids were their own leaders. The government shouldn’t waste its time looking for leaders elsewhere, thinking this was directed by anyone. It was an uprising born out of a consciousness of rights, not some kids who only talk about partying. And if they do party, it’s because they have the right to.”
The youths started getting involved in the protest against the social security reform, says Sandra Ramos, because they all know that if they work they’ll be paying into the system and will have a retirement pension. Sure they got involved to protect their own future, but it had much more to do with their empathetic imagination, which left them seething when they saw elderly demonstrators being beaten. After that, history required more of them.
If one march becomes a social mobilization, what turns a social movement into a one-off protest? That evolution is unpredictable because it depends largely on both the response—the capacity to convince other people—and the reaction of those being protested against.
The professor I spoke with recalls that “when the April thing started, one of my students got this message to me: ‘Tell the prof I’m in the street because of what she taught me.’ I sought her out afterward and asked her: ‘Did you know what you were doing? Did you realize you were opening a window that we couldn’t open?’ She answered that ‘we never imagined it. ‘No way. We’re shocked by what we’ve done.’ That gives you an idea of what happened here: there can’t be a conspiracy if those who alegedly set out to conspire aren’t fully aware of what they’re doing.”
We rose up to defend those kids
Ramos explains April’s social uprising as being rooted in the values of being Nicaraguan and argues that those roots can be traced all the way back through the country’s history: “The universe of Nicas has a characteristic not all Central Americans have. We’re very affable: we’ll protect you and help you if we can. And more use should be made of that in the analyses, to base them on the people involved.”
“Who are Nicas really?” she asks rhetorically. “Why did we explode like that in April? Why did we explode in response to the massive violence against our rights, especially the right to life? Look, the Nicaraguan people have risen up to defend the kids three times, because we see our own kids reflected in them, just as they saw their grandparents in the elderly people who were attacked. I saw the people rise up for the first time when we were in the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, not to defend the Sandinista guerrilla fighters, but to defend the kids who joined them. The people rose up when the Somocista guardsmen began to kidnap kids, just like is happening now. They captured and disappeared them in the Cuesta del Plomo [an undeveloped hillside on the outskirts of eastern Managua]. The people rose up because of that: because the saw so many kids beaten, killed and burned in the barrios.”
Ramos says the second uprising was in 1990, “but that was a peaceful struggle, through the ballot box. I remember the people asked the FSLN to end the Patriotic Military Service, the obligatory draft, in which young kids were dying. Daniel Ortega was rumored to be planning to announce an end to the draft in the party’s final campaign rally, but he got tough and didn’t say what he had to say because he thought all the people supported him. I saw how people turned their back on him. And now it happened again: the people rose up when they saw the kids being massacred, just as they were in the insurrection and again in the war of the 1980s.”
“These people are protecting their future,” explains Ramos, “and if you ask me why I personally took to the streets in April, I’ll tell you. It was because I saw my own sons reflected in those kids they killed; my own sons when they were students and fought for the 6% [of the national budget] for the universities. I rose up when I saw the police put out students’ eyes with rubber bullets. The people rose up again. And not just in Managua, but also in Wiwilí, Muelle de los Bueyes, Rancho Grande… remote places that don’t even have universities. The peasant movement came down from the mountains to defend the kids and mobilized for them.”
From that perspective, April is explained by empathic imagination: the spontaneous protest evolved into a social movement because there was ferocious repression then a counterattack by the people, who saw the young protesters as their sons and daughters. A social movement rose up in defense of the youth.
Carlos Fernando Chamorro put it another way, referring to the first day or two: “The brutality of the repression unleashed by the government’s shock forces and protected by the Police generated an indignation that was fed by the images of wounded young people and adults and by pummeled and assaulted journalists.” And guerrilla comandante Mónica Baltodano drove the point home: “The Police couldn’t dislodge the students in the Polytechnic University (UPOLI), nestled between two grassroots barrios, because the population put up barricades to protect hundreds of youths who took refuge in the classrooms.” And so it went. People in urban barrios as well as rural peasant farmers joined in the massive defense of the youths.
We don’t want a “strongman”
The absence of any traditional firm leadership from the youths who promoted the rebellion generated subsequent criticism of them related to the concept of leadership. The critiques resurrected the old leftist dichotomy about organization vs. spontaneity of the masses.
When asked about that by journalist Jon Lee Anderson, Lesther Alemán, one of the most visible students at the head of the Civic Alliance, responded: “There is no leader out of fear of succumbing to caudillismo, to being governed by a strongman. We don’t want to repeat what has occurred in this country.”
It wasn’t the first or last time a member of the University Coalition would disown the old-style leadership. In fact, shortly before going into exile, several of the most visible figures confirmed their position as “spokespeople,” not “leaders” of the university movement, emphasizing their rejection of caudillismo.
The most ardent critic of that position was Fernando Bárcenas, who has a solid political formation. He wrote that “it is regrettable that student representatives don’t know how to conceptually differentiate between a leader and a caudillo. The student representatives say they abhor caudillismo and define themselves as spokespeople, not leaders. What matters is not what they abhor but that they construct a centralized and coherent leadership, which is essential in any struggle.”
An echo of the criticism made by the professor resounds here: how to move from “He’s an s.o.b.” to a more analytical position, which in this moment, at least in Bárcenas’ judgment, must be expressed in solid analysis and centralized leadership. His critique also echoes that of Engels against Bakunin’s jubilant excess with the anarchism of the Paris Commune. Bakunin held that the application of his anarchist ideals preserved the Commune from the authoritarian virus. Engels responded that “I know of nothing more authoritarian than a revolution.... It was the lack of centralization and authority that cost the life of the Paris Commune.”
The nature of social movement leaderships
In previous texts Bárcenas had insisted on other aspects to leadership. He defended the need for a theory that guides the struggle: “Revolutionary management of the struggle requires not just that the students and peasants be extraordinarily valiant, honest, incorruptible, intelligent and ready for sacrifice. They especially require revolutionary political principles, a revolutionary theory that guides the praxis.” And he advocated a planning strategy: “The lack of method and of clear objectives favors the status quo, the Ortega way. The student repudiation of what Ortega stands for must be expressed in political positions with ideological coherence. For now, the movement’s greatest weakness is its spontaneity, without a program of changes that involves the nation.”
Bárcenas’ critical statements were the best argued defense of vanguardism. But the fact that the young people of the University Coalition have had a marked opposition to building a vanguard isn’t due only to a cultural particularity of this generation or to a resurgence of anarchist romanticism. Social movements are a phenomenon in which there is no place for vanguards. Or if perhaps there is, it will be for a multitude of dispersed leaderships.
That’s what has happened in other social movements. After the July 1789 revolution in France, one insurrectionist told the police interrogating him about those who led them to the Palais Royal that “they had no leader and each man was as free as the others.” In post-April Nicaragua it was clear there were multiple types of leaders, including 20-year-old university student Lesther Alemán or Oriental Market merchant Irlanda Jerez.
There is an easily traceable plurality of leaders in social movements. In his 1994 book Power in Movement: Collective Action, Social Movements and Politics, US political scientist Sidney Tarrow argues that movements are very rarely found under the control of a single leader or organization. The dilemma increasingly occupying the theoreticians of collective action and scholars of social movements in the decades leading up to his book was thus how to maintain collective challenges despite personal egos, lack of organization and state repression.
We aren’t raising caudillos
While Bárcenas reproached the absence of leaderships and strategies in the April student movement, the very lack of leaders is actually a strategy in itself. At least that’s how Valezka Valle sees it: “We aren’t raising caudillos,” she insists, “and that drives Daniel Ortega and the regime crazy. If they grab me tomorrow, they can be sure that another girl will go out into the streets and continue shouting. It’s not just Lesther Alemán, Valezka Valle and a few others here. Although we are known faces, if we aren’t here, more leaders in the departments and in Managua will continue this struggle. He’d have to build 20 prisons, 20 more Chipotes and put us all in there. Because even if he grabs us, he can’t stop this struggle. And we all think the same way.”
It’s not the first time in history and it won’t be the last that this happens. When the secret organization of textile workers who called themselves Luddites went through England destroying the machinery that they feared would replace them, they often denied having a leader and insisted that “we are all one.” More recently, the group of residents in Rancho Grande, Nicaragua, who called themselves Guardians of Yaoska, formed to keep gold mining out of their municipality, applied the same strategy.
Theoreticians of social movements have the same perception that the Nicaraguan youths formed intuitively when they state that “In lieu of Lenin’s centralized party, we now recognize the need for more elastic mobilization structures.” The same thing happened in Guatemala during the uprising of 2015. According to Miguel Ángel Sandoval, “we went into the street without visible or recognized leaders, without proclamations, with no presence of any political party or social organization, without the old ideas.”
In Nicaragua in April, the opportunity to initiate a social mobilization was provided by empathic imagination activated by the government’s unrestrained repression. The movement didn’t expect propitious conditions—the heightening of the contradictions—nor did it produce them by force of will. What happened in April was born as a social movement when diverse social sectors, multiple classes and several generations were moved by their indignation at the repression. And as Carlos Monsiváis wrote, “Indignation isn’t a bad organizing principle.”
The theories of collective action and revolts have moved towards the idea that the lack of a vanguard is a positive sign. The Nicaraguan youths rejected leadership linked to caudillismo because they knew that they weren’t representatives in that traditional sense and because over the course of events they had been alongside numerous local leaders that they couldn’t nor wanted to control. Perhaps what weighed on them when referring to themselves as “spokespeople” rather than “leaders” was the awareness that they had to be immersed in a social force they were never going to control, lead or represent as the revolutionary vanguards of other times aimed to do.
The myth of heroic Nicaragua
The professor I spoke with also said that “in the rebellion there was a lot about the myth of heroic Nicaragua. But it’s one thing to be a hero, another to be a leader, and still another to be capable of heading up a project.”
There is no question that the social movement that emerged in April was full of heroic acts that had more to do with the culture of heroic Nicaraguans than with organizational structures. According to anthropologist David Kertzer, action isn’t born from the minds of organized people, but is culturally inscribed and transmitted, as occurs with religious rituals: “The learned conventions of collective action are part of a society’s public culture.”
The terms of struggle in the April revolt, i.e. of its propaganda and understanding, are an amalgam of conceptions that range from the leftist language of the 1980s and even earlier, to its Catholicism and scatology, and including the wooden terms of the NGOs. This discourse, Gramsci would say, is “the result of ‘spontaneous’ combinations of a given situation of material production with the ‘fortuitous’ agglomeration within it of disparate social elements.” Leaders work with this material and are steeped in it.
The myth of heroic Nicaragua “oriented” the forms of the struggle. Kertzer notes that power rests on rituals but is also subverted by them. That is why social struggles are not only measured by a cost-benefit calculation and the mounting of effective machinery, but also by their symbolic management and impact. Twitter and Facebook unquestionably helped, but there were also “identifiable symbols extracted from cultural frameworks of significance.” In Nicaragua there was a wide range of symbols: Catholic religious ones, revolutionary political and even specifically Sandinista ones, and above all nationalist ones (the blue and white of the country’s flag). Given this, the youths of the Coalition couldn’t claim leadership of the myriad of initiatives sprinkled with so many symbols of diverse roots.
Spontaneity and leadership
in the April rebellion
In support of Bárcenas’ thinking, we could repeat Gramsci’s statement: “Failing to give them a conscious leadership or to raise them to a higher plane by inserting them into politics, may often have extremely serious consequences.” The movement could, for example, end up allying with a reactionary rightwing movement for concomitant reasons, like an economic crisis that would affect both sets of people.
Nonetheless, Gramsci was aware that the “leadership” of a movement is an issue that could be determined by the voluntarism of a group of leaders. For that reason he posed the dilemma of spontaneity or leadership that is conscious of the social struggles and questioned the purists at both extremes.
There is a high degree of spontaneity in the groups that participated or are participating in the uprising against Ortega. Their acts are spontaneous, Gramsci would say, in the sense of not being due to a systematic educational activity by an already conscious leadership group, but rather formed by the daily experience illuminated by common sense; in other words, by the traditional grassroots conception of the world.
That sense of spontaneity, however, does not explain how many of the kids belonged to or had belonged to organized groups—feminist ones, women’s collectives, NGOs, parochial and both Catholic and Evangelical religious groups, even the Sandinista Youth—and had received an ideological formation and organizational training to manage collective processes. Perhaps in some cases the repetition of the NGOs’ discourse was automatic and reflexive. But in other cases, such as for feminists and the LGBT community, the discourse was much more important to them. Affiliation to formal or semiformal groups leaves some kind of sediment. The April movement didn’t start from zero, but from preexisting social networks, from an organizational infrastructure that made it possible to transform episodic collective action into “social movements,” as Tarrow defined them.
The youths who participated in the April revolt talk about spontaneity because, just as in Gramsci’s times, it is a stimulant, an energizer, an in-depth unifying element in response to all the negation...
Gramsci concludes that “this unity of spontaneity and conscious leadership”—i.e. of discipline—”is precisely the real political action of the subaltern classes, insofar as it is mass politics and not a mere adventure by political groups that appeal to the mases.”
In light of their experience of rebellion, April’s youths gave a non-vanguardist sense to that “nascent direction” and wanted to show that it was at the same time a rupture in the political culture and a version more linked to what was becoming their way of exercising leadership. The idea of vanguard connotes a control over the actions of the masses. If radical activism in the United States has aimed for activists to “have a certain level of control over the flow of events,” that wasn’t either the experience or the decision of the Nicaraguan youths. “We’re shocked by what we’ve done,” as the student from the school of political formation told her professor. And that is precisely what a social movement is all about.
The weight of Nicaraguan culture
The April revolt has been at least as revealing as other events that have happened in this country or elsewhere, if not more so, because it has brought to light the best and the worst of human beings and societies.
Nonetheless, one needs to be cautious about assessments made in the heat of the blaze, because they tend to have a mix of projection, appraisals based on anachronistic scales, and retrospective recovery… The exceptional circumstances that led up to this rebellion also make way for exceptional behaviors, where the contingent elements play a major role that could be ephemeral.
The professor I spoke with identified some positive signals in what amounts to an advance, but warns that they don’t necessarily indicate that the youths have become experts in politics. “NGOs,” she says, “criticize the excess of ‘adultism,’ but young people don’t know everything because they haven’t lived long and haven’t even read much. The beginning of the rebellion was heroic. There were moments in which it seemed to me that joining the marches was in vogue and we know that young people like to follow fashion: How can I possibly miss out on this? There was a moment in which I feared this would end up on tee-shirts and going on marches as a group, blowing horns and taking selfies… I feared that young people weren’t going to know how to manage things: key things like security, government infiltrators and the like. I believe in the adage ‘give someone power and you’ll see who he is’ and that’s why I think giving power to a young person is an enormous risk. Will they know to handle it?”
She and others were alarmed when some Nicaraguan youths went to El Salvador and met with politicians of ARENA, the extreme rightwing party there. Splits over protagonism or superficial rivalries have been a source of alarm. The youths who rebelled have discovered along the way many of the errors that made it unviable to remain entrenched in UPOLI. That action fell apart due to the proliferation of infiltrators. The lack of frank communication and the competition for leadership roles have been recognized even more by the youths than by their adult critics. It was a similar story with the reproduction of individualist and patriarchal values.
The pot calling the kettle black?
Professor Karla Lara distances herself from these adult critics: “You can’t burden the youths with all the responsibility. Apathy or individualism isn’t just a problem affecting young people.” This comment resurrects the controversy by showing that adults have fallen into the half-table fallacy: attributing just to youth the generalized features of Nicaraguan culture.
Furthermore, those teenagers have probably been revalued and reevaluated by a sector of adults because the latter saw that they finally did what they expected them to do. In the adults’ value system—obviously introjected onto the youth—what they did is what they must do and what it corresponded to heroic youth to do. From this vision, they received reproaches—like those of Bárcenas—when they didn’t do everything they were supposed to do or in the way they were supposed to do it.
They made the dictatorship tremble
But it hasn’t all been reproaches. They have also received laudatory comments for everything about their way of leading or inspiring the struggle that amounted to a break with the past. The filtrations of adultism, its mythologies and projections amay be inevitable. The breaks with the old tradition have been a new acquisition that is perhaps being incorporated into the political culture. In any event, both are the material on which that intergenerational connection rested, making the April movement possible and now provoking recognition and fanning the hopes of many.
I can also see this in the professor I spoke with: “Nobody could have imagined so many youths would be willing to die in the streets. No one imagined it, not even the dictatorship. The youths made the dictatorship tremble,” she said with barely concealed joy. “This all began because there were young people who valiantly stood up to the anti-riot police. Did 15-year-old Álvaro Conrado know what he was facing when he decided to hand out water to student protesters in Managua on April 20 and was shot in the neck for doing so? Did he calculate that he would be denied access to a Social Security Institute hospital and would die in another hospital several hours later? It began because we never imagined the anti-riot police would shoot to kill the way they did. If we don’t understand how this began, we don’t understand anything. So much courage by the kids, and so much repression by the government. That was Nicaragua’s heroic culture activated without measuring the consequences. I know today that the boys and girls I’ve taught something of critical thinking to awakened all of Nicaragua. And I can now sleep peacefully. I might not see Daniel Ortega leave, but I saw those kids come out.”
José Luis Rocha is a researcher associated with the Institute of Research and Projection on Global Territorial Dynamics of the Rafael Landívar University of Guatemala and the José Simeón Cañas Central American University of El Salvador.